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JUNE/JULY 2005 | REGIONAL | PACIFIC NW

Report From The Vanguard : Cider Press
By Marie Oliver

Achieving category dominance requires supreme tenacity and a positive attitude. The smokescreen would be the casual style that belies an executioner’s instinct. After all, “They say the beer and cider business is a cruel money trench, full of thieves and liars, where weak men and women die like dogs.” The CEO of the California Cider Company, Jeffrey House, may have said that in jest during a recent visit in March, but he has survived, a quarter of a century later, to tell the tale.

When House started Thames America in 1980, there was never an intent for the small specialty importer to establish one of the biggest brands of cider in the Western United States. “I came to America in 1977 from the London advertising business and started selling spirits and wine,” he said. One of the first to sell California wine to England, House said he got his green card on exporting California wine and importing British beer.

His current multimillion-dollar cider enterprise aside, House took advantage of the Irish pub movement of the 1980s and 1990s to build a $1.5 million business for Blackthorn Cider in America. It took about 10 years to achieve that status, and such was his success that the Miller Brewing Company wanted in, and House got cut out. "Sometimes it’s better to keep a low profile when you’re representing somebody else’s brand," he reflected. If you do too good a job, you lose it, and if you do too poor a job, you lose it.”

Because House was importing British beers, he was marketing his products in Irish pubs. "And every Irish pub owner asked, ‘Where's the cider?’” he said. House professed not to be particularly interested in cider at the time, because in England it is a younger person's drink. “It was an initial drink before you got into better beer,” he said. Consequently, his baseline was the better beer, but he could not turn his back on the significant requests.

"Sometimes it’s better to keep a low profile when you’re representing somebody else’s brand. If you do too good a job, you lose it, and if you do too poor a job, you lose it.”

“An Irish pub without cider is like a Chinese restaurant without noodles,” he quipped. The Irish pubs wanted a cider, and like any importer worthy of his business license, he went and got some cider. He states Blackthorn was the cider of choice because the people there were easy to work with.

Fast-forward to 1995. Having lost two major accounts in a decade — Fuller's in 1990 (after having launched the name London Pride and their ESB) and then Blackthorn Cider, House had to either reassess or fade into startup oblivion. At the time, he observed that the Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams brands were doing quite well in the marketplace. In the Pacific Northwest, Jim Kennedy was going strong with Admiralty Distributing, and Widmer Brothers, BridgePort Brewing and Redhook were excelling. Thus House contemplated producing a craft beer. “But I didn't see how you could come up with a unique selling proposition,” he said, spoken like the true ad executive he is to his core.

And then came that fortuitous and fateful call from a journalist in Vermont, telling him about a home-based cider maker about 45 minutes away from his San Rafael home. “So one sunny morning I took the Highway 116 turnoff, which I'd never been on before. And I looked around and said, ‘Oh, my gosh. This place looks like England.’” House said the environment was verdant, the cows looked well-fed, and the birds were twittering.

Apparently, the only reason to come out to the Sebastopol area was to see where Alfred Hitchcock filmed “The Birds” in Bodega Bay. “There weren’t any hotels in town; they didn’t want you to stop.” But House was captivated. He rode around a town that was evidently apple country, with juicers and processors of apple flakes for the Kellogg’s brand. The only thing lacking was a cider mill.

“Sebastopol is called West County, and in England it’s called West Country,” explained House, referring to Devon, Somerset, Herefordshire and the border of Wales. “Very pastoral, with rolling hills and walking coasts.” In his words, “completely shaken,” House made his way to the home of this cider maker and thought the visit went well. House offered to set him up in business by buying some equipment and having the fellow make some cider for House’s enterprise.

He then met a winemaker who offered to help in Hopland, Calif., in Mendocino County, at a winery called McDowell Valley Vineyards. The cider was hand-kegged. House bought a van (which he still drives, since his 16-year-old son has his Jeep) and hired a "Coors draft man" in San Francisco. They went around to all the Blackthorn taps and managed to get back about 10 accounts from the ones they had lost. House said his new cider was much better than Blackthorn Cider, although a number of people did not think it was dry enough. In four years, House and his associates had replaced the $1.5 million loss from the demise of the Blackthorn account.

Subsequently, the operation moved to Sebastopol, Calif., where it currently is in the form of a complex operation of three distinct businesses. According to House, the building houses Thames America, the import company; California Cider Company, the makers of Ace Ciders and exporters of ciders; and the Ace-in-the-Hole Pub, which is the showplace for Ace Ciders as well as a village pub that has "morphed" into a music venue. And that's just the first 25 years.

Marie Oliver is a beer and cider enthusiast living in Portland, Ore., and a writer at pdxguide.com.

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